Monthly Archives: March 2021

The COVID WFH Legacy

What will remain from WFH and Learning from Home


Alexandra Whittington and ID Pearson


COVID has stimulated rapid change in technology and work practices that support working from home. Some of the changes might have happened anyway, but over much longer time. Some of the changes benefit workers, some their companies and some both, so we shouldn’t expect a return to the ways things were before COVID. Some of those changes are here to stay. It may be too early to be absolutely certain what will stick and what won’t, but we can identify enough of the forces at play to be pretty sure.

Fallen barriers

We always knew we’d communicate using video in the future – all the sci-fi said so, and it made perfect sense – but there were lots of barriers in the way. Many of those have now gone. We now have a wide range of good video comms platforms, not just Skype. Some are integrated and much better suited to business practices.

We have seen rapid parallel growth of business-oriented social media platforms such as Teams and Slack, Clubhouse and many others. Some of these will inevitably die out, and some will survive, as  rapid evolution and competition weeds out those that don’t work as well as others, or are limited to just iOS or Android. With so much reward available, competition will be fierce and development rapid. These platforms will evolve, but they will not go away, and our future work practices will include them.

Hardware technology such as better cameras, with higher resolutions and light sensitivities, better focus and face tracking, have all made it much easier to accept video communications. Faster and cheaper broadband, incl mobile, makes it possible to transmit the high data bandwidths needed. These barriers have only recently been breached, but now that they’re gone, they will never return. Good, cheap, high quality video communication is here to stay.

Although less glamorous, cheap and attractive LED webcam lighting has also helped a little.

Green screen technology bypasses privacy issues. If you don’t want colleagues to see what your home office decor looks like, or that you have to use a tiny room, it is very easy to add a background image or video. Again, this is a recent tech development, another barrier that was high before COVID that is now gone forever.

A recent Economist article showed that the share prices of electronic payments companies rocketed during the COVID lockdown. Of course we already had online credit card or Paypal (and Stripe etc) payments before, but WFH has incentivised their development and removal of any minor barriers to them staying and being permanent.

It isn’t just technology that was holding things back. Forced familiarity has broken the significant adoption barriers. There was a critical mass of users that was needed, and it simply wasn’t there. When nobody you knew was using the tools, what was the point? First adopters get poor rewards. Now that everyone has been forced to use these practices, the social acceptance and incentive barriers have gone.

Overall, there are now very few barriers to using online communications tools such as video platforms for everyday business meetings. Before COVID there were lots.

Ongoing Incentives

COVID revealed many benefits of working from home. Some were always there, but again, forced familiarity has been a good introduction to them. The first and most obvious are no commute time, no travel costs and other significant financial savings such as not having to buy expensive coffees, takeaway lunches, or even much of a work wardrobe, especially as online video normally only shows head and shoulders. There are also major savings for employers on office space. They will still need offices, but far less space, only needing to accommodate the maximum number of staff likely to be there. Many companies are shrinking the space they rent or lease, with huge impacts on property values in cities. As people gradually return to offices, there may be some growth again, but the savings for companies are high enough for them to encourage staff to keep working remotely as much as possible.

There are even some minor social advantages in not going to the office, such as not being forced to meet people you don’t like much. Introverts may be very happy with fewer face to face interactions. Most people don’t like meetings, and it is easier to resist endless meetings when you’re not in the office. The fact that zoom etc are not actually much fun reduces any incentive to hold a meeting unless it is actually useful. This benefits employers and employees. Meeting junkies will find it harder to force colleagues into an endless stream of pointless meetings, and that colleague whose ego was built around constant meeting attendance and being seen to be involved in things will miss out. Good!

In terms of interpersonal experiences, the lockdown period has been particularly effective at merging the personal and professional domains. This massive experiment in working from home has revealed the extra burdens on working parents, women in particular. Now that these challenges have had the spotlight and attention, don’t expect women to go back to the status quo very easily. This entire episode has been not just an apt reflection of society’s inability to create a proper work-life balance for half the population, but a reminder that a 40-hour workweek favors men. Gender equality has actually lost footing during the pandemic. This is unacceptable during a pandemic or under ideal conditions. Many families were rewarded with more quality time and that’s probably going to be preserved as long as people can manage to maintain it.

Persistent fear and social cooling

COVID will not go away completely; new viruses will emerge frequently around the world, and from now on, each will cause a fresh round of fear – we can no longer dismiss them as things that only affect far-away countries. Occasionally there will inevitably be a virus far worse than COVID. COVID killed far less than 1% of its victims but some can kill up tp 40%. 

The current nervousness and mild suspicion people often feel around strangers is very likely to persist for many years. Indeed, many people have learned to actually fear being close to others, which may persist as a long term phobia, mild for some, stronger for others. So we should expect that people will shake hands less, kiss, cuddle and hug less, and there will generally be less physical maintenance of emotional bonding between people. Some of our body’s emotional mechanisms are associated with touch, such as release of various hormones or neurotransmitters when we have physical contact with others, so this reaction is not just imaginary. These biological mechanisms evolved over millions of years, and if they are impeded, our social relationships will be weaker. We call that social cooling. Persistent fear will certainly lower the attraction of face to face proximity and make it easier to accept remote behaviour. 

Though there isn’t a lot of evidence yet, these effects may well be stronger in children and young adults, whose brains are still relatively fluid. Pre-COVID behaviours were also less ingrained in young people simply because they had less time exposed to them. Given the rapid emotional and hormonal changes around puberty, many young people going through that phase during this emotionally intensive period may suffer lifelong effects.

COVID-19 tamped down all social activities except those that could be experienced online. Unexpectedly, everything from parent-teacher conferences to cocktails shifted somewhat coherently into the virtual world, while concerts, comedy performances, exercise classes, shopping, cinema, museum exhibits, and religious worship were all transformed into at-home digital experiences in 2020. Given the impact of social distancing, will private homes continue to morph into cultural and social spaces?  Socializing from home is not only more convenient, but is undoubtedly less expensive and time consuming. The popular Broadway hit “Hamilton” serves as a great example of how exclusive cultural content was made more accessible during lockdown.  Millions of people were able to experience a performance that was streamed (free) across the internet during lockdown. Previously, steep ticket prices and geographic proximity were huge barriers that kept the masses from enjoyment of the popular show. It’s quite possible that customers will demand similar options in the future, which could have a democratizing effect that is quite needed on things like arts patronage, physical activity, and leisure time. However, how will life look when our home is not just a shelter, but a workplace, school house, university hall…and a fun place as well? 

Governmental temptations and pressures

Government has also gained some very valuable new powers that it will not let go easily. Lockdown itself is a very draconian measure that could never have been introduced without a threat such as COVID or major war, but it will be very tempting to use it frequently from now on, for any virus, any kind of civil unrest, even crime control. Worst of all, it is already being seriously considered as a means to achieve carbon zero, with lockdowns every 2 years being debated. 

Now that government has that tool and knows we will accept its use even with weak evidence for its necessity or effectiveness, it may well be used in future any time it is considered useful. 

The prospect of a lockdown at any time will have significant effects on most company strategies, plans and provisions. It doesn’t need to be used to have a significant effect – it just needs to be a possibility. 

Other tools that are extremely attractive to government, that had only previously been resisted because of fear of public reaction are now much easier to push that they know the public will mostly accept them given even a moderate excuse. Increasing surveillance, monitoring, testing, face recognition and new ID mechanisms are just a few of the more obvious ones. COVID has justified accelerated development of all these techs without the requirement to further justify them, but they add up to a very rich (and still rapidly growing) toolkit for surveillance, monitoring, control and oppression.

Some financial benefits accrue to the government too. With fewer people seeking medical help, and indeed, wth many old people now deceased, there will be lower costs for health care for a few years, or at least it will cost less to clear the huge backlog that has built up during lockdown. It will be easy for the government to continue its message of helping the NHS, deterring some people from seeking help. 

Other health care changes will remain too. Doctors and hospitals love working remotely. It reduces their workload (many people don’t bother trying to see them and just put up with things), it reduces their direct risks and costs (infection, violence, and the need for chaperones), surgery costs (insurance, waiting room space, car parks, staff numbers, consumables and costs of missed appts. Since they continue to receive full payments for each person on their books, these add up to greatly increased profits. They will resist returning to pre-COVID practices unless they are offered even greater pay.

Incidental government benefits include lower traffic levels, which reduces both road costs and congestion, reducing pressure on government from these directions. However, lower traffic also  disincentivises taxes based on mileage, and favours taxes based on car ownership, so this will delay decisions such as replacement of car licenses by road tolling.

Lower mileage for electric cars reduces costs of public charging infrastructure and numbers of power stations, and allows more time for installation. This makes a significant government incentive to keep WFH if they can.

It’s worth pointing out that, combined with social media, WFH tools are enabling political activism in the COVID era. Technologies that allow people to text, call, or email strangers about issues for which they share a passion is a step forward in evolving civic engagement. Numerous social justice issues that have gained the spotlight during the pandemic year (democracy and voting, police brutality, women’s safety, racial inequality, to name a few) may be sustained indefinitely in the public discourse with the help of smartphones, social media accounts, and communications technology that brings information around the world at the speed of light.Throwing our support behind issues, candidates, campaigns, and funds is easier than ever. Also, we are far more tuned in to what’s happening in other countries than our own, given the global nature of the pandemic. 

Wider economic effects

It is also possible to foresee persistent long term economic effects originating from COVID WFH practice. For example, companies now know that with WFH embedded and proven they can consider sourcing some staff from the global market. For some roles, that might mean a much bigger pool to pick from, so they can increase staff quality and reduce staff costs. For other fields, it will have no effect because the skills needed are localised. For still others, it will produce a global market for elite skills. The consequences will be that we will see elite salaries rise high, commodity salaries reduce greatly, but some roles will remain unaffected. For roles that need physical presence or face to face working, there will also be no major effect on staff cost.

A headline in the financial news recently read “Zoom towns are boomtowns”, citing the top 15 US “Zoom towns” composed of urbanites who relocated from big cities to small towns during the pandemic. White-collar workers are moving in record numbers to suburbs and towns outside of urban areas,which is a trend that is not going to soon reverse, judging by Manhattan’s low real estate prices. Major companies who have made all-remote workforces the norm are encouraging this trend while feeding another growing trend – digital  nomadism. Digital nomads will be a formidable type of talent after the pandemic. Exploring the world with a laptop and a vaccine passport will never have seemed so appealing as it will for young people who’ve been cooped up for a year or more. The fact that a survey by an employment search website found that a third of the respondents said they’d quit their job before going back to the office suggests that the employer/employee power structure has shifted in favor of workers (at least, knowledge workers). Demographic patterns like these will impact the financial grandeur of large cities, but allow smaller cities to grow. There was already a significant trend towards de-urbanisation, but lockdown has accelerated it. This could change how we view the globalized economy. 

During COVID expat employees were frequently sent back to their home countries, resulting in a type of reverse brain drain. Countries like Italy and Greece, for example,experienced some economic benefits when native segments of the educated workforce returned. The numbers were lower than some people had predicted, at around 7%, but this trend may continue if expats latch on to the WFH trend that, along with the growing acceptance of digital nomad life, gives employees a great deal more control over where they live. If it sticks, it could alter the traditional flow of talent from developing economies to more developed ones. Some countries could become havens (tax or otherwise) for affluent people interested in the digital nomad way of life. 

Travel will be harder

Business travel was always perceived as a nuisance to some and a benefit to others. Again, some effects will persist from the COVID era. Most obvious is the need for COVID passports, which government is busily developing even as they pour scorn on the idea in press briefings. They are very likely to become compulsory not by government decree, though that may happen, but by the likely fact that people will have very inconvenient restrictions on what they will be allowed to do without one. That might remain for several years, and by then, new viruses are likely to emerge that will create an excuse to keep health passports, even as COVID is replaced by other names. Health passports might eventually vanish, but they may well be here to stay. During the next several years, we should also expect harsher treatments and tedious systems at many locations, such as potentially unpleasant testing enforcement. Anal swabs? No thanks! Potential confinement might also be a lingering threat that could sometimes become an issue during a trip. For example, quarantines, backed up with fines or imprisonment can suddenly take force. This presents a significant risk for some trips to certain areas.

Travel costs will increase too, not least due to having to allow potential expenses for the risks just mentioned. For a while, airlines will have to be highly competitive on prices to regain some lost business, but the longer term dictates higher prices to cover higher costs, lower traffic and desire to maintain profits and recoup losses during lockdown.

The ability to build up frequent flyer points on business travel may become extinct after COVID. A major lesson learned from 2020 is that some meetings should really just be an email. Therefore, after the pandemic, the criteria for what constitutes necessary business travel will change. Events that once would have required a trip will be evaluated differently, both by the company and the employee. In fact, some employees (particularly those who have relocated far away from big cities) may expect to receive bonuses or incentives for travelling away from home for work. Even though the vaccine will ease people’s fears around contracting COVID, business travelers in the next few years could still make a case that international travel puts them at risk and they deserve better compensation. Another argument would be that the costs of travel can no longer be justified as a business expense unless a face-to-face presence is absolutely necessary. And, working mothers may push back against the expectation to return to “normal,” when normal was an untenable set of demands that served to reinforce gender inequalities. Now that the work-life balance scales have tipped, don’t expect them to go right back to where they were in 2019.

All of this adds up to a major disincentive to business travel and favours working remotely. These effects might decline gradually over time, but they will remain significant for several years.

Future communications technology

Lockdown made us adapt to using basic video comms (though infinitely better and more versatile than we had a couple of years ago), but tech for AR and VR is accelerating and it won’t be long before they have their effects too. Surround audio, high resolution video, and full 3D immersion will soon become expected. Eventually, as VR becomes more ingrained into product visualisation and design, gaming and R&D, and even marketing and sales we will see a spread of sensory translation technologies, which today include vibrating gloves and other haptics, but which will eventually evolve into active skin (tiny devices embedded on or in our skin, linking to our nervous systems to record and replay sensations), and active lenses, writing high resolution 3D imagery straight onto our retinas.

We already know some of the roles of VR in home working – product visualisation, simulation, meetings, and full body, full size communication, as well as in gaming, retail, travel and the entertainment industry. These roles will develop and multiply, becoming forever ingrained into everything we do online, simultaneously becoming better, cheaper and more intuitive to use.

Roles of AR will include a wide range of useful overlays, and will also likely be a reasonable substitute for VR in environments where safety hazards otherwise prevent pure VR use. Avatars will have some business utility, but will really come into their own in social networking and gaming where they can add novelty, beauty, personality extension or role clarification, but also enable gender swaps, age swaps, roleplay and many other features.

AI can also add many extra features to comms, such as meeting facilitation, note taking, minutes, project management, or executive assistant and secretarial functions. Industry-specific AI can even add virtual experts in particular areas to a meeting attendance list.

Combining technologies, avatars can interwork with AI to offer personal substitution, so you can be in two places at once, or just duck out of unwanted meetings but still be represented partially. For those people on the autistic spectrum, AI could interwork with their avatar to enhance their social presence and improving the quality of their social interactions. Avatars and AI could also help introverts and less-assertive women to get a word in at meetings versus their pushier male or loudmouth colleagues. Avatars driven by AI can essentially level the playing field for everyone, especially if AI is chairing the meeting and managing who gets to talk when.

AI, Robotics and Drones

We see rapid progress on automation already. Robotics continues to become more advanced but also cheaper, making it feasible to automate jobs that previously were too difficult or uneconomic to automate. This has a bearing on outsourcing overseas, because if robotics is cheap enough, the incentives to move work to another country is lessened. This might therefore somewhat offset some of the forces described earlier that enable exporting to cheaper countries.

AI generally is improving, especially with deep learning gradually catching up and exceeding human capabilities in many niche areas. Further away is artificial general intelligence, where AI can learn to think across wide fields just like humans. It will come, but the next few years will still see most development in niche-specific AI, where there is still a lot of low hanging fruit to pick. 

There is an increasing consensus that the best way to use AI is in partnership with humans, upskilling them to do jobs faster or better than they could otherwise. In that sense, AI can be thought of as just more of the same advance that we saw when Google replaced an hour in a library by a minute on a search engine. It will improve efficiency and productivity but not necessarily replace an individual job. However, in some areas, it might allow easier exporting of the job to a lower wage country, while importantly keeping the intellectual property of the AI in the home country.

Drones may have been rather overhyped in some areas but will still be important. An aerial delivery drone will probably not be allowed to land on a town pavement in front of a terraced house, where it could obviously present a risk of injury to pets, children or passers-by. However, they can safely be used already for delivery to a properly designed industrial (or hospital) delivery bay staffed by people trained in proper H&S procedures. In between, are people in suburbs with back garden lawns. Although technically feasible to deliver here, there are still many potential objections, so we should assume that this won’t be commonplace for some years. Like AI, drone delivery can speed things up compared to road delivery, making just in time industrial processes better, and allowing more distributed processing.

Drones also have other uses such as security and surveillance. Some of the human roles associated with these can theoretically be implemented anywhere, so again, this allows export of some jobs. They also allow direct substitution of some jobs, such as delivery driving or helicopter surveillance.

Training and learning

Many of the same factors apply in learning as for working from home. On-line learning has grown enormously during lockdown, helping retraining or simply alleviating boredom. The learning industry has somehow managed to retain its fees and structures during lockdown, but that is surely not sustainable, however hard they try. In the background, very many online courses have been springing up that allow people to learn fast in their own time, in their own homes, at low cost. This mostly new competition will take time to substitute or replace old courses, but the trend is now irreversible and some rebalancing will happen, with lowering of fee levels being just one of the consequences.

One key differentiating factor in online courses is whether they give a certificate. Many courses are free to do, but the certificate has quite a high price. As global markets for online working become the norm, certification will become increasingly important, so that business model might persist. It allows training companies to claim they are providing valuable social benefits while still making good incomes from those who can afford to pay.

There are particular benefits in using AR/VR for training, especially when learning skills appropriate to specific physical environments, where the work environment can be precisely duplicated, showing its risks, interfaces and so on, so that people can learn how to work safely in that particular environment without actually being there. AR and VR engage visual and audio memory instead of just text, potentially improving recall, though that assumes more stimulating visual mechanisms than bullet points on Powerpoint slides!

Another interesting application of VR to training and learning involves the use of VR to teach so-called “soft skills” such as tolerance. Workplaces may expect future WFH employees to use VR training to learn communication, empathy, and inclusion. One example already available is to help people understand the effects of racism. It may prove helpful to provide highly immersive employee training experiences. One advantage of VR is that it can be performed in the privacy of one’s home or at the workplace. Given the reverberations of the remote working revolution, emotional intelligence may become particularly important as the workforce becomes more distributed and people are in less face-to-face contact with colleagues.

There will be obvious effects on course costs and prices when class sizes can be in thousands, and for many courses, costs per attendee can drop very low indeed if materials are just online, available any time any place any language on demand. Superstar teachers with elite skills will be sought after globally and attract very high pay, while commodity teachers competing with massive global supply so on low pay. Indeed, some superstar teachers will have their own companies.

As chatbot tech continues to develop, AI guidance for students will also improve, so AI can act as a virtual tutor, or even lecturer, allowing a lecturer alternative to boring text. This has real potential to replace many teachers, or allow other teachers to reach out to more people, with AI dealing with some students while they focus their human skills where they are needed.

Post-COVID, educators might find edtech helps to get students caught up academically. However, this should not be a priority until sufficient socialization, sense of security, and some structured sense of stability has been restored for the youngest students. Sound emotional foundations are needed for good education, and they will need some extensive repairs. An interesting conversation that has emerged from the quarantine year is the impact this period will have on healthy childhood development. Education experts in the UK have proposed “a summer of play” to make up for the past school year’s deficiencies – not academically, but socially. With mental health-related red flags raised across swaths of society, it is being advised to forgo extra summer lessons meant for kids to make up learning losses, but instead focus on stress-relief and joy. 

Team Building

Bringing people back together at the workplace after COVID is probably going to offer some novel experiences. It may be fair to say workplace socialization will never be the same. Spending time with our teams serendipitously may become curtailed by the fact that so many employees are showing a preference for keeping a flexible schedule. There’s also the fact that some people have moved hundreds of miles away from their team during the pandemic relocation frenzy. And, inconsistent vaccination uptake across society could impede the ability to meet face-to-face. There’s the sense that it will be a significant aspect of the WFH revolution, but what will team building look like after the pandemic?

Retreats in nature, in luxury, and/or highly secluded locations may be a valuable tool in the future. If an organization is interested in increasing employee morale of teams across a distributed remote workforce, for example, it seems like attractive vacation-style locations will be the best way to lure people from their comfortable cocoons to attend team building events. These kinds of functions could become the perfect antidote to Zoom fatigue, providing intimacy and bonding on a personal level that would permeate over six months or a year. 

It’s theoretically possible that some of these could also be implemented in VR, which is a novelty in itself for many, and can still achieve some of the same goals alongside remote working. However, real life will generally be better than VR for most people and that is where the main focus is likely to be.

Furthermore, hotels, AirBnB, and other forms of lodging (including castles) are quickly transforming into coworking spaces. This trend not only shows how fluid the concept of a workplace has become during the pandemic, but indicates that the business travel industry is adapting to the WFH/digital nomad lifestyle as well. The advantage for organizations is that team building can now complement, rather than obstruct, work-life balance by doubling as a vacation, since the hospitality industry is beginning to resemble WeWork anyway. Several hotels have implemented programs designed for working throughout the day out of guest rooms and other spaces. Some WFH (work from hotel) packages during the lockdown were geared toward affluent working parents and included a tutor for helping children with online lessons during the day, catering exclusively to digital nomads that travel in packs (eg, families).

Recruitment and Personnel Management

For organizations, a huge advantage of distributed work teams is that it increases the size of the job applicant pool. With many jobs now allowing WFH, companies can choose from a huge range of potential talent. The ability to interview and screen applicants online has also surely saved companies hundreds of thousands in travel and lodging expenses. Post-COVID recruitment practices will probably continue along these lines, shunning expensive and elaborate travel except for the most upper-level positions. Interview tactics for virtual job seekers will become a learnable and teachable skill.

The rise of WFH implies tremendous growth in technologies intended to monitor employees’ time at different tasks. The “big brother” aspect of the remote and distributed workforce has not reared its ugly head very prominently but it is waiting. Herein lies a huge uncertainty going forward: how much surveillance are employees and students willing to give up in order to learn and work from home indefinitely? 

Career progress & WFH

Before COVID, occasional studies suggested that people in the office are typically better noticed by their managers and thus more likely to be promoted, and at the same time, people working from home often feltl undervalued, or were (reasonably) concerned that the boss suspected they aren’t working as hard as they are. We’re still waiting to understand the full impacts on these issues since COVID lockdown, though some are obvious, but in any case quite a lot of people have started new jobs since then and some have never even met their bosses or colleagues except on zoom. These factors will have very significant effects on whether someone is accepted as much a part of a team as those who already were pre-COVID. 

Education too must suffer some of this problem, such as the problem of teachers assessing work if they have never met the student submitting it. A teacher can’t judge a student’s total merits by just marking their homework.

20 Things for the 2020’s

Obviously, the historical event known as the COVID-19 pandemic has had and will have a lasting influence on the world for some time. Considering epidemics and pandemics are natural occurrences that we can count on, we should view these instances as random catalysts of social change. What is new about COVID-19 seems like it represents the first big pandemic in a real-time globalized world, thanks to modern technology.

The changes we sense since COVID hit are social and technological in nature. They properly demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between the two, creating new behaviors/activities, while curtailing others. Below we offer two sets of 20 things: 20 that aren’t coming back and 20 that won’t go away. Welcome to the 2020’s.

20 Twenty things that won’t come back:

  1. Full-time cubicle life
  2. Five-day conferences
  3. Face-to-face parent-teacher meetings
  4. Formal business dress code
  5. Demoralizing team building events
  6. Workplace policies biased against working parents
  7. Default face-to-face contact at school/work
  8. Educational experiences without a digital component
  9. Long, boring, in-person training
  10. Disproportionate work-life balance
  11. Elaborate/expensive employee recruitment
  12. Inadequate technology skills
  13. Frequent flyers, and air-miles
  14. Technological illiteracy
  15. Agoraphobia as a mental illness needing treatment
  16. Homes that don’t include office space
  17. Unnecessary meetings
  18. Packed commuter trains
  19. High wages for jobs that can be done anywhere
  20. The two hour commute

20 Things that won’t go away:

  1. Dismal birth rates
  2. Surveillance capitalism
  3. Digital ID
  4. Telehealth
  5. Governmental monitoring/track and trace apps
  6. Lockdown powers
  7. Reinforced green regulations
  8. Public willingness to do as govt tells them
  9. Use of face masks during flu season
  10. Zoom kit – LED ring lights, decent cameras and microphones
  11. Fear or suspicion of strangers
  12. High house prices in rural and pretty areas
  13. Lower daytime city population
  14. Toilet roll hoarding
  15. Higher prices for holidays/hotels/air travel (may be short term special offers)
  16. Overcrowded restaurants, holiday spots, sporting events
  17. Brick-and-mortar schools
  18. Shopping, but mostly as a social activity and diversion
  19. Online friends you’ll never meet
  20. Online shopping

The Authors

Alexandra Whittington

Alexandra Whittington is a futurist educator, writer, and researcher. She is a Lecturer at the University of Houston, where her students describe her as “passionate” about the future. Her courses explore the impact of technology on society and the future of human ecosystems. She has published dozens of articles exploring diverse aspects of the future, often from a feminist perspective. Alex has co-authored and co-edited several books, including A Very Human Future and Aftershocks and Opportunities: Scenarios for a Post-Pandemic Future. She studied Anthropology (BA) and Studies of the Future (MS) at the University of Houston.


Dr Pearson has been a futurologist for 30 years, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. Graduated in Maths and Physics and a Doctor of Science. Worked in numerous branches of engineering from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. 1900+ inventions including text messaging and the active contact lens, more recently a number of inventions in transport technology, including driverless transport and space travel. BT’s full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 and now runs Futurizon, a small futures institute. Writes, lectures and consults globally on all aspects of the technology-driven future. Eight books and over 850 TV and radio appearances. Chartered Member of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.

Want to be a futurologist? Key roles in the futures industry

joint blog with Tracey Follows

I spent most of my career as a futurologist and thoroughly enjoyed it. I simply can’t imagine not being interested in what lies ahead, or ever stop thinking about it, so I guess I’ll be a futurologist until the day I die. I’d strongly recommend it as a career, and it is becoming much more fashionable now, so I get lots of emails asking me how to get into it.

Thousands of people call themselves futurists or futurologists. One of the commonest questions I am asked is what is the difference? They are the same thing. I used the term ‘futurologist’, because I study the future, so futurology is simply the obvious and most appropriate term. ‘Futurist’ is unfortunately much more commonly used. Before it came into use for people who study the future, the term ‘futurist’ already referred to an artist who practices futurism, an artistic and social movement that originated in Italy in the early 20th century, emphasizing speed, technology, youth, violence, and objects such as the car, the airplane, and the industrial city. At a stretch today, it could also be interpreted as someone with a futuristic lifestyle, such as a gadget freak. I can think of no sensible derivation for it as a term for someone who studies or talks about the future, but we are where we are. A futurist is therefore just a futurologist with lower regard for English. However, since 90% or more of them use that term, I pragmatically concede defeat and use ‘futurist’ to avoid endless argument. Futurologist is correct, but futurist is used more frequently. I now use them interchangeably.

Everyone thinks about the future sometimes. Even animals do so. Sheep may gather under trees if they see rain coming; almost all animals take evasive actions if they see predators. Doing that often involves modelling – figuring out what the predator might do, the path it might follow, where you’ll land if you make that jump with a particular force and direction. Nature has equipped us already with many inbuilt modelling skills. You think what the weather might do when you decide what to wear. You plan your food shopping according to what you have and what you think you will need. You think further ahead when you consider your investments, your retirement or what to encourage your kids to study at university. Some people become sufficiently skilled at thinking about what the future might bring that they can make a career from doing so, or perhaps do so part time as one role among many. If you find that possibility attractive, you already have the main attribute needed to be a futurologist: an interest in the future. There are several different roles that you can aim to fill, depending on your various talents. In this blog, I’ll briefly outline the field, the many different types and roles and the talents, knowledge and skills needed for them.

I’ll avoid jargon, and that’s also my first futures lesson. Jargon can be a useful shortcut when referring to commonly held concepts among colleagues, but if you’re explaining anything to anyone outside a field, you should be able to do so in ordinary everyday language. Jargon is field-specific (and can even be team-specific) so it gets in the way of communication if people don’t interpret that same jargon in exactly the same way as you. Worse, jargon acts to compartmentalize ideas and knowledge in your own mind, creating translation barriers between the compartments, and so impedes futures thinking, even if it slightly speeds up thinking in its specific field. If you can easily and seamlessly make links in your mind without having to step over those barriers, your thinking will be more fluid and you’ll quickly see things that most other people won’t. You’ll also find it far easier to do the sort of system-wide thinking essential to any useful futurology. I have nothing but contempt for those who use jargon or ‘big words’ as a way to feign expertise. Paraphrasing Einstein, “if you can’t explain it to the man in the street, you don’t understand it well enough yourself”. I’d add that it’s always better to convey big ideas with small words than small ideas with big words.

There are several main roles in the futures space:

Amateur futurologists are abundant, visible in very pub chat discussing who might win a football game, or what the budget might hold. We all engage in that amateur futurology frequently. A large number of people read interesting articles about the latest tech or science developments and tweet or blog about them, and that is all part of amateur futurology too. This is a great way to test the water – if you get bored after a while, it isn’t the right career for you; if it is a great source of enjoyment, perhaps you could take it further. Many progress directly from this start-point to professional futurologists and beyond (see the section below on futurologist speakers, writers, film-makers, bloggers, journalists).

Professional futurologists should go beyond this amateur level enthusiasm for the future, adding some real expertise and credibility. To be professional rather than amateur, by definition it needs to account for a significant source of their income. Many roles in business have some futurology in them. Pretty much everyone in strategy or planning, R&D, or even on the board needs to think about the future and what it may bring as a significant part of their job – forewarned is forearmed. Larger companies can often afford to have a few people who do that all the time. As a full time role, they develop a well-stocked mindset of what the future holds and can identify the many forces at play and how they may play out, and thus draw key insights (valuable enough to justify the cost of their role) that they can offer others in their company. They can help other departments to be prepared for what is coming.

Others such as designers, politicians, artists or writers may have large elements of futurology embedded in their jobs, even if it isn’t their title discipline.

Futurologists do not necessarily need expertise across a very broad area. Many futurologists are focused on deriving valuable insights within a relatively small field, such as the future of energy, or food, or fashion, or construction or some other field, and they don’t need to have any great activity outside that field. They are nevertheless valuable employees who can help ensure their companies make good strategic and planning decisions. Over time, futurologists will generally broaden their expertise to account for forces and events further afield, and become skilled in thinking further ahead may eventually become expert futurologists.

I think the main core skills needed for professional futurology are clear thinking and analytical skills, systems thinking, imagination, and also the ability to explain results to others who may not share you in depth industry knowledge. If you have those, you can produce insights about the future that are sufficiently useful to others to justify them paying you for it. But I’d also add discernment as a skill that makes a huge difference in the quality of build of the futures mindset, and the insights produced. Many people, sadly even some futurologists, can be taken in by things that others with better discernment skills might dismiss. The difference in outcome is between a reliable prediction of what the future will hold versus a more popular one that might push the right social media buttons but will not stand the test of time. Poor discernment skill doesn’t stop you from becoming a futurologist – you might still be able to produce material that grabs media exposure, but it is likely to be of low predictive value. Discernment skill makes the difference between getting it right occasionally and getting it right most of the time, between being limited to offering scenario planning and futures facilitation workshops, or being able to offer reliable predictions.

Many corporate futurologists start off in a fairly narrow field and broaden their scope gradually over time. I started futurology after a decade in systems engineering, so I had a lot of relevant expertise and experience, but it was confined to technology, mostly IT. Over a decade, I expanded that to cover the whole of IT, and then most other technology fields, including biotech, construction, materials, space, defense, transport, energy, and environment and then in the next decade on to food, beauty, cosmetics, sports and leisure, entertainment, medicine and even pharmaceuticals. Over those two decades, I also monitored a broad range of externals such as society, government, human nature, psychology, marketing, economics, incorporating them into my futures world view as appropriate. It really does take many years to incorporate all of those fields into a futures mindset that extends to 2050, but you can start small and grow.

Others take different routes. In fact, every field has a future to be analysed, and futurologists may come from any of them. My co-author Tracey came to futures through marketing and advertising communications, trying to analyse and model the changing values of the consumer, the changing lifestyles and match any emergent needs with emergent solutions. As with science fiction, media and communications offers a way to understand a changing society and that can often lead into a deeper interest in the specific area of futures. Each corporate futurologist has their own unique background and skills, and each will consequently look at the future with a different angle, drawing out different insights.

Expert Futurologists should have a broad, well-stocked mind view of what the future is likely to look like across a broad field over a broad timeframe. They will have a great deal of knowledge about that field, and a lot of insight into the key forces acting in it. They should be able to map the futures landscape in their field, highlighting the main features in it, the main threats and opportunities, and thus determining some plausible futures scenarios that might be worth investigating or preparing for. They should, on demand and relying entirely on their mindset, i.e. without having to google anything new, be able to outline and explain those key trends, forces and interactions, what is likely to happen and how that will affect the many stakeholders (government, people, business, society, the environment). They should know not just about current trends, but have enough insight in their field to predict likely new developments even where there are yet no trends, by pulling together insights from across the field to essentially invent things that do not yet exist but which are likely to arrive in due course. An expert futurologist should be able to make inventions within their field. To be worthy of the term expert, they should be able to factor in influences across their broad field and process those against other external forces built up of their own life experience, such as human nature, likely political or social reaction, market responses, and by doing so, an expert futurologist should most certainly be able to make not just plausible scenarios, but reliable predictions, determining not just the map of the future terrain, but the most likely path to be taken (or paths where there really are some genuinely unpredictable events or decisions, though that should be the exception, not the norm).

Skill-wise, the same skills mostly apply as for professional futurologist, but obviously significantly better developed, with a broader remit and longer time-frame. However, the best futurists are plugged into many different fields of interest and are good at spotting weak as well as strong signals. Especially if they start to notice a weak signal among people across different communities, they will gain a good sense of that trend as well as where it might be going. They don’t need to be expert across all those areas to notice signals in them, but it is certainly useful to at least have antennae facing numerous interesting and cross-disciplinary areas. 

The list of areas I cover is still growing but there are still enormous gaps in my knowledge, and that’s fine. I only have one brain, and it can only do so much, like anyone else’s. I know relatively little about global politics, the future of China or India or South America, or Indonesia, or Brazil…, I still don’t cover individual companies or brands, or law, or most regulation, and I could go on. There is a future for everything, but thankfully there are also many futurologists, and someone somewhere knows lots about those fields where I know nothing. That’s how it should be, but that does mean you also need to have futures contacts you respect who know about the other stuff.

Futures facilitators

Many companies engage in strategy or planning workshops, where they think about the future and its various threats and opportunities. There are many ways of doing so, but one of the most common is a scenario planning workshop, where a group identifies some potential ways the future might unfold, and how these might impact on them. Some go further and work out how they might influence the future to their own advantage. There are a variety of ways of running these workshops and various charts and tools that help guide participants through the processes – many readers will be familiar with two-axis charts dividing the future into four nice neat scenarios. The people who run such workshops are futures facilitators. Sometimes a senior manager or strategy consultant might take that role (not least because it can be a valuable team building event and can be excellent at getting personal commitment to a strategy) but really it is a straightforward administrative task that can easily be done by a junior manager or admin staff. That doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. Futures facilitators can become skilled at running such workshops, developing interpersonal, motivational and leadership skills that help get the most out of the valuable time of the attendees, making sure everyone gets a chance to talk, that loudmouths don’t monopolize the whole time, that ideas aren’t immediately dismissed and creativity squashed before they can be explored further. Some offer very valuable personal skills, but facilitators don’t need (although they might have all the same) any particular futures knowledge themselves, and they don’t even need (though again, might have) any interest in the futures discussion. The key expertise at the workshop lies in the attendees, who should be chosen carefully. They provide the knowledge, the analytical skills, the insights and often the managerial clout to implement what needs done as a result. The role of the facilitator is to guide them through the process of extracting and harnessing their expertise.

Some facilitators may also be professional futurologists in their own right; indeed many are, and as well as helping attendees to think about their future, they might add their own futures knowledge and insights to help them do their analysis. As with many jobs, being a futurologist is often one part time role the employee fills among several. But facilitating discussion, helping or guiding others to think about the future is facilitation, not futurology per se. A skilled individual can and sometimes does fill both roles, but there is no value in conflating them.

This is an important distinction that needs to be stressed because it aligns well with the chasm between academia and industry. I often see it written by academics in the futures field that “one of the myths about futurologists is that they predict the future”, often going on to explain that “nobody can predict the future”, that “the future isn’t predictable”. That’s simply nonsense. Many people, in industry at least, can and do predict the future reliably. Their company may depend on them doing so. Their job may depend on them doing so. I made thousands of predictions of the future for my employer and its customers over 17 years, scoring over 85% accuracy ten years ahead (yes, I counted, and that is an honest figure, not some exaggerated sales claim). 85% isn’t perfect by any means but it is still very valuable. So, why do people make these comments that futurists don’t predict the future? Is it just ‘Those that can do. Those that can’t, teach. Those that can’t teach administrate?’ Perhaps.

When you look at what they do, the services they offer are mostly teaching and futures facilitation. As I explained, a facilitator runs a workshop, and tells attendees what they’re doing next and guides the general process of thinking about the future, e.g. making scenarios and thinking them through. The primary knowledge, thinking, predicting and insight lies with the workshop attendees. Futurologists worthy of the title offer either prediction skills or insights about what is driving the future, i.e. what will drive the various options you might have to deal with. They should really be able to do both. If you are neither offering the attendees key insights nor making useful predictions, you are not acting as a futurologist but as a facilitator, typically a junior manager of administrator role. If you can’t make grounded predictions or at least offer genuine useful insight about what, where, who, when, or why the future will do x, y or z, you are not a ‘futurologist’ or futurist, whatever other roles you can reasonably claim. Please don’t say futurologists can’t predict the future. I’ve been a professional futurologist for 30 years, making thousands of reliable predictions. Maybe you can’t, but I certainly can, and so can many others. It really is nonsense to say otherwise.

Futures Teachers

A growing number of institutions offer courses that teach about the future, the skills and tools that are useful in studying it or using the outcomes, and even some of the basic knowledge about the various factors that will influence the future. Many other futures courses have come and gone. It is certainly useful to teach students what the future is likely to hold in broad terms, an assortment of useful futures skills, and also to teach them discernment and research skills so that they can build and maintain their own mindsets, as well as thinking skills, especially those that help them to think in whole systems terms, and teaching some basic work-shopping techniques etc. Futures teachers who teach such things may also be established futurologists in their own right.

Many futurologists take such courses, but many others develop their futures knowledge, thinking and analytical skills via on-the-job learning. I’d argue that both are valuable. If the desired role is to be a futures facilitator, or futures teacher, a futures course might suffice in itself (though basic facilitation skills can be learned in an hour or two). Being a professional futurologist requires serious in-depth knowledge of a field so a futures course can be a good springboard, but is really only valuable if accompanied by real experience in a field. By contrast, in-depth real-life experience is a good teacher in itself, since most futurology comes down to clear thinking, system-wide and sector-specific knowledge, and mature experience of everyday life, while many futures techniques are also widely embedded in many fields (modelling, trend analysis, data and stats know-how, basic planning and strategy techniques for example). Industry knowledge and skills can take many years to master, and futures techniques applied without that skill-set might be low value, so ideally, futurologists would have several years of real-life experience working in their chosen field as well as experience of using assorted futures techniques, which may be learned either from courses or on-job. Many corporate futurologists (like the authors) came that route. Teaching works both ways too. I’ve been involved in futures courses both in course development and teaching, and I’ve had enough exposure to various content and tools to know what works in practice and what doesn’t. As with any area, there is good and bad teaching, and good and bad techniques, so discernment is an important skill here too.

Futures speakers, writers, film makers, bloggers, journalists

Many futurologists give talks at conferences or workshops, or appear on TV and radio. It’s to be expected. The products of futurology are both interesting and useful, a rich source of food for thought, strategic input or even entertainment. Some excellent futurology has come from science fiction writers. H G Wells, Aldous Huxley, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell and even Terry Pratchett and many others too many to list have given us rich visions about what the future might hold, and often their visions have been well thought through, so are self-consistent and plausible within their own frames, even if some of the sci-fi technology would never work for real. Futurology requires some of the same skills needed to write good sci-fi, so it’s not surprising. Sci-fi also has a rich two-way interaction with technology fact, and writers may be good scientists or engineers as well as writers. Futures writing often becomes film-making too (or TV series such as Black Mirror), so this part of the futures industry is one of its most glamorous lucrative sectors. In more mundane use, futures writing also costs in in PR and marketing, where it can grab abundant media coverage and clicks for a campaign by adding interesting materials about the future, however tangentially related to that campaign it might be.

Many futurists have blogs or video channels. Some interview researchers or receive press releases about future products and write about them. If they add insight on the likely impacts of these things, or predict what future versions might bring, then they are properly fulfilling the requirements of being a professional or expert futurologist in their own right. I have come across some excellent futurologists in this space, who make great interviewers because they have thought the issues through themselves so know the most interesting areas to focus on and ask about, where to challenge and where to let flow. I guess the key difference here is between an amateur futurologist who just reports things, and the professional journalist futurologist who thinks about the implications and adds insight.

Futurologists may often be asked to speak at conferences, with a wide mix of briefs that range from entertainment, opening people’s minds with stimulating ideas, outlining threats and opportunities, providing thought leadership, and sometimes are there to give complacent employees a much-needed kick in the pants.

Trend watchers

Many futurologists specialize in spotting existing trends and extrapolating them for a few years. Some call themselves trend spotters, trend trackers, trend analysts; some call themselves data scientists and some of them might even laugh at titles like futurist or futurologist, and that’s fine – a rose by any other name smells as sweet – they are still part of the futures family. Data science is a broad field in itself, often with a highly specific insight as the goal. Extrapolation is only useful for existing trends and usually only works for short term, but it is still highly valuable within those constraints. Data analysis tools, especially latest AI tools, can also produce insights on trends that are not easily noticed. Many other techniques are important here too, such as watching M&A activity, interviewing key people in industry or regulation, watching what people are talking about on social media. So trend spotting or analysis is a very different field from longer term futurology in terms of skillset, but every bit as valuable. This trend spotting and tracking often results in very pricey reports that are eagerly bought by companies wanting to develop particular markets or products. It saves those companies doing the work themselves and can help reduce risk enormously. Other companies do their own analysis internally, often at great expense, to extract the valuable insights that feed into their short-term planning. So although this is a very different field, looking at the short-term future with very different skills from the longer term futurology that I do, it is still certainly futurology and very important part of the field.

Futures Activists

Some groups even call themselves futures activists, but that term grates harshly against the core futurology skill of clear thinking. Obviously, people who are professional futurologists or even expert futurologists can also be activists in any field they choose. In fact, most of us are also engaged in various hobbies, special interest or political activities, but futurology is to do with mapping the future landscape, highlighting the important features and predicting the paths most likely to be followed. Activism seeks to force society down paths favored by the activist, quite separate and quite different. Lobbying, campaigning, distributing propaganda, demonstrating, or using social media to pressurize or attack or silence people are all the stuff of everyday 2021 politics, but activism is nothing to do with futurology per se. To be clear, futurologists may also simultaneously be parents, environmentalists, democrats or conservatives, gardeners, and activists in any number of areas, but those other things are not futurology and there is no value in conflating roles. As for activist groups who differentiate by race, futurologists should be judged by the quality of their insight or the accuracy of their predictions, not by the color of their skin.

Also into this activism role should be placed the frequent conflation of aspiration and prediction. Mapping out the field of potential futures is futurology; aspiration may be interpreted as looking at the futures landscape and picking and planning the path you wish to take, which may or may not involve also applying some futurology, but aspiration itself is neither a skill nor a useful qualifier, since everyone has aspirations. Again, the two activities are really quite distinct and there is no value in conflation. There is nothing wrong with working with organisations or clients to identify and steer towards a preferred future, but one has to more objectively investigate what the possible or probable default futures might be first.

So, there are numerous distinct roles in the futures industry, and it’s commonplace to blend them with other roles or with each other. The field is very rich in enjoyable, challenging and rewarding activity, and we would recommend it as a career.

Tracey is a futurist and author of The Future of You: Can Your Identity Survive 21st-Century Technology? She is the founder CEO of Futuremade, a futures consultancy advising global brands and specialising in the application of foresight to boost business. She helps clients spot trends, develop foresight and fully prepare for what comes next. A regular keynote speaker all around the world she has covered topics as diverse as the future of luxury, retail, media, cities, gender, work, defense, justice, entertainment, and AI ethics, decoding the future for businesses, brands and organisations. She is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists and World Futures Studies Federation, and a Fellow of the RSA. 

Dr Pearson has been a futurologist for 30 years, tracking and predicting developments across a wide range of technology, business, society, politics and the environment. Graduated in Maths and Physics and a Doctor of Science. Worked in numerous branches of engineering from aeronautics to cybernetics, sustainable transport to electronic cosmetics. 1900+ inventions including text messaging and the active contact lens, more recently a number of inventions in transport technology, including driverless transport and space travel. BT’s full-time futurologist from 1991 to 2007 and now runs Futurizon, a small futures institute. Writes, lectures and consults globally on all aspects of the technology-driven future. Eight books and over 850 TV and radio appearances. Chartered Member of the British Computer Society and a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science.

Brain refresh mechanism

I just read the transcript of an excellent podcast by Brian Roemmele and Jim O’Shaughnessy covering the intelligence amplifier and other ideas.

Engineering is rather like walking along a pebble beach with a friend. You’ll both experience broadly the same beach and will generally agree on the big picture stuff, but you’ll notice different pebbles. So it is with the field of connecting IT with our bodies and minds. Many engineers have worked in the field and in spite of a lot of overlap, there are enough differences in background, skillset, perception and approach that we’ll often come up with alternative ideas and insights, and even different solutions to the same problems.

In this case, it was clear we’ve both explored the issue of our brain forgetting information and experiences, and although forgetting can be highly useful tool in creativity, it can also severely limit our ability to think. If you could recall every book, every lecture, every idea, how much better might you be able to think through a new idea? I found a short article I wrote 30 years ago on this very problem. Most of it would still be valid now, and it doesn’t even contravene Roemele’s consciousness bandwidth limit. Here it is:

Brain refresh mechanism, April 1991

The Macintosh has a desktop rebuild facility, which restores links between applications and documents. Norton utilities on the Mac have a further facility for repairing directories so that lost information can be found.

Adding these facilities, and working out the brain equivalent, this would perhaps be the same as restoring all one’s memories and skills, since all previous links in the brain would be restored. This sounds very sci-fi but there may be a way of doing this. It requires some modest advances in technology and maybe biology and psychology too but doesn’t everything?

It is well known that electrical stimulation on certain parts of the brain will stimulate memory recall, and this can be so accurate as to be the equivalent of re-living an experience. When this happens, the brain then restores those links in memory which had been lost and the person will remember this experience afresh (and probably eventually forget it in the same way). It is conceivable (but not certain) that if many points could be stimulated that large areas of memory could be rebuilt.

Obviously, it would not be desirable to carry out an operation to do this so it would need to be done remotely. Suppose that a safe (but electromagnetically responsive) fluid could be injected into the blood-stream. Suppose then that an electromagnetic field could be created at any desired point so that a localised high intensity was to result (this technique is already well established in radio-therapy). With the right choice of fluid, this could possibly result in sufficient stimulation to achieve the same effect as direct electrical stimulation. Since the electromagnetic field could be steered, presumably a complete brain refresh could eventually be achieved, with great enhancement in knowledge and skill.

Given the appropriate advances in CAT techniques and the discovery of suitable fluids, the rest is down to experimentation.

It is possible, although more unlikely and certainly further future, that information could be directly stored in the brain using this technique, accelerating learning and directly conveying information. By then, other more direct brain interfaces may have been developed, for transactions in either direction.

Possibly a silly idea.